First Nations issues won’t be the focus of this fall’s federal election, but it will be a backdrop to several party campaigns.
That's according to political expert Doug McArthur, director at Simon Fraser University’s School of Public policy, who spoke with the Georgia Straight by phone about the Truth and Reconciliation’s Report on the residential-school legacy in Canada.
The report, which called the school system an act of “cultural genocide”, is generating a lot of media attention to First Nations issues. Justin Trudeau and Thomas Mulcair hailed the report to journalists, while Prime Minister Stephen Harper attended the Commission’s closing ceremony to address the residential-school system’s 120-year legacy.
“It means that parties who show compassion and understanding are going to be seen by a lot of the voting public as exhibiting the kind of caring that voters want to see,” McArthur said. “We’ve seen evidence of that in Alberta recently, things that evoke a caring and compassionate leadership draws people to certain issues.”
Going over the report’s recommendations, McArthur notes that it is an investment toward ideas and a direction to make a change in society.
“It’s going to take time for the leaders in civil society and government to absorb what these recommendations could mean in terms of reaching out and bridging these huge gaps that have been created,” he said. “There should be healthy debate about how these things should be done, and how they are to be approached and what role First Nations should play in defining these remedies, all of that is not going to happen overnight.”
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission released a summary on Tuesday (June 2) of its report into Canada’s Residential School legacy, detailing a “cultural genocide” that killed an estimated 6,000+ children taken from their homes to live in these schools. It comes with a list of 94 recommendations, ranging from enabling child-welfare organizations to keep Aboriginal families together in culturally appropriate environments, to launching an investigation into missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada.
The full report, accumulated from years of engagement with First Nations communities, is due later this year.
The report comes in a long line of bad press for federal and provincial governments regarding Aboriginal equality. In May, a former staffer with the B.C. Liberals came forward to claim that the government had deleted emails about the Highway of Tears. Other issues include Wally Oppal’s inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women in BC, the Idle No More movement, and other instances that date back even farther that McArthur had a personal hand in.
“In 1992 to 1994, I was working in the B.C. government as the deputy of Aboriginal Affairs and one of my mandates was to negotiate at the First Nations summit, putting into play the agreements," McArthur said. “At that time, I used to travel around the province and speak to various organizations, local governments, and businesses; there was a tremendous amount of skepticism and hostility to the idea that we should reach out and deal with this reality through treaty making. There has been a remarkable change since that time in the sense of concern and understanding that we do have important obligations and issues that must be dealt with and they must be on the agenda of governments.”
“Overall I am very optimistic that society in British Columbia and Canada is much more sympathetic and ready to take on responsibility and do something," said McArthur. "I think there will be a missing women’s inquiry, it’s just a matter of how it’s going to happen and how long it’s going to take the government to understand it is unacceptable to stonewall this issue.”
As for how likely these recommendations would be acted upon if the federal Conservatives won this fall’s election, McArthur feels it’s possible, but unlikely, given Harper’s earlier comments about a missing women’s inquiry as “not high on our radar”.
“It’s obvious that their lack of compassion, their refusal to face the reality of this situation and its dimensions, it’s one of the reasons why the Conservatives are having difficulty getting above 29-30 percent in terms of support among the electorate,” McArthur said. “You see some softening of Conservatives on a number of agenda items, maybe they will soften on this one as well.”